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[February 21, 2013]
The 411 on FirstNet [Rural Telecommunications]
(Rural Telecommunications Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) While this has been the historic norm ever since the formation of police departments, fire departments, paramedic units and other first responder groups, September, 1 1, 2001, highlighted the communications breakdown caused by these interconnectivity and bandwidth issues.
"On 9/1 1, the failure was not with the equipment or with the first responders, it was with the decision-makers who decided not to have interoperability," explained Brian Fontes, chief executive officer of the National Emergency Number Association (NENA), a professional organization focused on 91 1 policy, technology, operations and education. He added that since 9/1 1, the country has suffered other major disasters, including Hurricane Katrina (and other lesser hurricanes), tornadoes and earthquakes, all reinforcing the need for interconnectivity and interoperability on a network that does not get congested.
With that goal in mind, public safety legislation was inserted in the Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act of 2012 (H.R. 3630) and was signed into law in February 2012. Specifically, the act directed the National Telecommunications Information Administration (NTIA) to establish a First Responder Network Authority, also known as "FirstNet," as a 15-member independent agency to oversee the design, construction and ongoing operations of a nationwide interoperable public safety broadband network. (See sidebar, "What Is FirstNet " for more details on FirstNet.) Despite its widespread appeal and backing, this legislation was not enacted until more than a decade after the terrorist attacks of 2001. The Public Safety Spectrum Trust, a nonprofit group established to provide organizational structure to further the goal of an interoperable public safety network, tried to form a public safety network five to seven years ago, explained Tim Bryan - chief executive officer of the National Rural Telecommunications Cooperative (NRTC), a group that represents rural electric and telephone utilities. Bryan is serving a three-year term as a board member of FirstNet. "But there were three key things missing that we now have - a license for the spectrum from the FCC; a committed source of funding; and a worldwide convergence on LTE [Long Term Evolution] as a technology," he said, pointing out that LTE technology enables relatively fast network deployment. "Verizon rolled out its entire LTE network in two to three years." Still, the naturally slow progress of bureaucracy has many wondering about the timeline and realization of FirstNet. The National Governors Association (NGA) - an avid proponent and tracker of FirstNet - said it does not anticipate FirstNet to even have its plans for construction finalized until late 2014 at the earliest.
"The FirstNet board was named in August ; they held their first meeting in September," explained Heather Hogsett, director of the Health and Homeland Security Committee for NGA. "It will need to put together RFPs (requests for proposals] and then go to each state governor to spell out how the network will be implemented in that state. This likely won't happen until 2014 or 2015." Before any plan is delivered, FirstNet's Bryan said the board must talk to all of the various players. "States, cities, public service, carriers - it's important that we talk to all of them," he said. "The more folks who are involved, the more folks will be on board with the cost, timeline and scope of this project. This is our first order of business, and 1 expect it will take us two to four months." Sbabes Mighb Qpb Dub Once the individual state governors have their proposals in hand, they have 90 days to decide if they want to opt in or opt out of FirstNet, Hogsett explained. "If they choose to opt out, they must file their own alternate plans with the FCC, they must lease spectrum via NTIA, and apply for grants - all within 180 days. That's a high bar and a tight time frame to opt out." NGA said it believes that most states will want to opt in. "The governors pushed and lobbied for this legislation for years," Hogsett said. "They see a need for a nationwide broadband network. To be successful, FirstNet will need as many users as possible to bring down the cost." Ron Strecker - former chief executive officer of Panhandle Telephone Cooperative Inc. (Guymon, Okla.), as well as a member of the now-disbanded Technical Advisory Board for First Responder Interoperability - said he wouldn't be surprised if many states opt out of FirstNet because the individual states want to have control of their own networks. "When you rely on Big Brother to come in, you often find that things aren't done the way you'd want it done," he said. He's heard rumors that Texas and Florida are considering opting out, as well as the cities of Charlotte, S.C., and Boulder, Colo.
NGA's Hogsett said certain cities and jurisdictions may be moving ahead of FirstNet with their own broadband public safety networks, but she stressed that they will still need to interoperate with the national network. "Think of these as pilot areas that may later get consumed by FirstNet," she said, adding that many states are in the process of gathering their own information to identify alternatives. "So once they do have FirstNet's proposal in hand, they have something to compare it to." Brent Christensen, president of the Minnesota Telecom Alliance (St. Paul), said the state is definitely going to go with FirstNet. "We know we want to get on board and will not opt out," he said, pointing out that Minnesota is besieged with natural disasters like blizzards and tornadoes. "In 2007, when the Interstate 35 bridge collapsed in Minneapolis, the emergency response units arrived on the scene. Department of Transportation, ambulances, fire departments, police, county and city officials - no one was on the same network, and there was a large issue with bandwidth." Will Telcos Dpb In Regardless of what the states decide, Strecker advocated that small telephone companies should opt in to the numerous opportunities that FirstNet represents to them. "Congress is encouraging FirstNet to form public/ private partnerships and to allow roaming on existing networks," Strecker said, adding that roaming would be a better solution than overbuilding a network that already exists. "If NTCA members already have LTE networks, they can work out roaming deals with either FirstNet or with states that may opt out of FirstNet." If small telcos don't have a wireless system, they could partner with a private entity and build one, Strecker said. "Any unused spectrum could then be resold in a retail environment or perhaps just used for the telco's own internal purposes," he said, adding that it's currently unclear how unused spectrum will be handled.
At the very least, small telcos could provide backhaul services to FirstNet. "That network is going to need a lot of fiber to connect towers and then haul that data back to the gateway," he said.
NRTC's Bryan agreed that he sees all of these opportunities, pointing out that rural telcos have extensive infrastructure. "They have towers, fiber, poles," he said. "As we work through the collaboration process with rural telcos, we see them being involved in terms of providing wireless services in their territories." Sid Applin, general manager of Alenco Communications (Joshua, Texas), admitted that FirstNet hasn't made it onto his radar screen, but he said his telco would be open to pursuing opportunities. "We have not built an LTE network. Our focus is more on deploying fiber," he said, adding that he would not be averse to laying the fiber for FirstNet and being a backhaul provider. "We'll backhaul any traffic." Alenco serves 60 miles of the Mexican border, "so we're already working with border patrol, and we would expect to see more of that activity," Applin said. "In terms of natural disasters, west Texas is prone to fires, central Texas has tornadoes and south Texas gets the fallout from hurricanes." Applin said he agrees with the premise that first rcsponders need a robust communications system, adding that he could envision state or federal agents contacting the telco to help build a network. "There's no one else out here except us," he said. "That's likely the situation in rural areas in other states." Some Concerns Other telcos are less receptive to the idea of working with the federal government on a national network. "The government always seems to be tryto put in fiber networks right alongside telco networks 'for the good of the people,'" said Craig Ottemess, general manager of Spring Grove Communications (Spring Grove, Minn.). "Are they going to start using these taxpayer towers to compete against us " Carl Turnley, vice president of Kaplan Telephone Co. (Kaplan, La.), said he's also wary of what will happen when the federal government gets involved. "Public safety issues tend to pull at the heartstrings, and everyone feels good throwing money at them," he said. "It's one thing for the federal government to dole out millions of investment capital up front, but then who's going to upgrade that equipment Who's going to do the maintenance on that Who's going to provide the training so the first responders can even use it " A network like FirstNet may be a good solution for potential terrorist sites, such as the 20 largest U.S. cities, Turnley said, but he questioned if it makes sense in rural America. "Public safety is a local and state issue. We need to focus on our local systems," he said, adding that the public safety communications system in Louisiana is more advanced than other areas of the country "If a hurricane makes it past Cuba, we've got a very good protocol to handle that. The first responders hunker down, and we work with them to set up a redundant system. It's like a military operation run by Bruce Willis." Even with a sophisticated system like the one Kaplan has in place, Turnley said it has been necessary to make adjustments on the fly - something that may be impossible to do with a federally mandated system. "Any communications system can break down," he said. "We've had times when a hurricane tore down a tower, so we set up a two-way radio system. We've even used walkie talkies." NENA's Fontes said FirstNet will give first responders a better tool to do their jobs. "Everyone wants our first responders to have the best equipment," he said. "Every day of our lives, we rely on them. They never know what they're going to be facing. During disasters, they must leave their own families to go and help others. Communication is another tool." While first responders are our modern-day good Samaritans, the successful implementation and use of FirstNet resides with them, Fontes said. "FirstNet represents a sea change in public safety," he said. "In this new world, the first responder units won't own the network. They'll be subscribers to FirstNet. Some people won't want to change; others will see the benefit in interconnectivity. The human factor will greatly determine the success or failure of this endeavor." NGA's Hogsett said most governors are optimistic about the potential of an interoperable public safety network, but she agreed that FirstNet won't succeed if first responders opt out by default and choose not to use the national network. "This has been a long-standing goal since the communications failures of 9/1 1," she said. "The challenge for the FirstNet board will be to build a network so that first responders want to use it. It must be appealing to police and fire departments and delivered at a cost that makes it feasible." Bryan said that the new network will be a novel mix of commercially deployed services through a public/private partnership, with public safety as the user group. "It's natural for people to ask: How is it going to run How is it going to be paid for " he said. "And they're looking to the board for answers. But the board's only met one time. We're trying to formulate a well-thought out, world-class network in the most efficient manner possible. We would like a little time." Bryan also noted that he won't favor electric co-ops over teleos when it comes to FirstNet operations. "The electric co-ops have a diverse territory; they own substations; they own a great deal of land," he said, adding that rural teleos have equally impressive assets and infrastructure. "Rural players have a lot to bring to this party, and we are willing to engage and work with them." Imagine a construction site where multiple crews show up to work. They all speak different languages and have different equipment and tools. It's urgent - perhaps even a matter of life and death - that they complete their work as efficiently and as quickly as possible. Also, there may not be enough building materials. This modern-day Tower of Babel illustrates the current state of public safety communications, where different first responder units operate their own individual gear at varying frequencies - and, in times of disaster, possibly without enough bandwidth.
What Is FirstNet In the legislation passed in February 20 1 2, the National Telecommunications Information Administration (NTIA) was directed to establish a First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet). It is not a network per se, but rather a 15-member independent agency that will oversee the design, deployment and ongoing operations of a nationwide wireless broadband network. "It will enable first responders to better communicate with each other during emergencies, improve response time and save lives," stated NTIA.
Specifically, the FirstNet board is charged with seven responsibilities: 1 Hold the spectrum license for FirstNet.
2 Develop a plan for network buildout, maintenance and sustained operations in each state.
3 Ensure nationwide standards for network use and access.
4 Deliver economies of scale for public safety entities.
5 Negotiate roaming agreements with commercial networks.
6 Formulate a fee collection system to ensure self-sufficiency.
7 Consult with local, state, tribal, territorial and federal entities.
To ensure adequate spectrum, the law stipulated that the FCC grant a single license to FirstNet for the use of the 700 MHz D block, which is adjacent to the existing public safety spectrum, giving the public safety sector a combined 22 MHz of continuous spectrum. To foster interoperability, the network will be based on the Long Term Evolution (LTE) standard.
Congress allocated $7 billion for the buildout of the network, with $2 billion of that amount available to be borrowed by NTIA as startup cash. The remaining $5 billion is expected to come from the proceeds of spectrum auctions that will run through 2022.
Seize the Opportunities With FirstNet While it's still too early to determine how FirstNet will impact small telcos' day-to-day operations, telco executives should capitalize on the potential opportunities it presents to their operations, stated Ron Strecker, former chief executive officer of Panhandle Telephone Cooperative Inc. (Guymon, Okla.), as well as a member of the nowdisbanded Technical Advisory Board for First Responder Interoperability.
Strecker outlined the following three possible ways to profitably get involved in FirstNet: 1 If a telco has an LTE network, it can work out roaming arrangements either with FirstNet or with states that are building their own interoperable networks.
2 If a telco does not have a wireless system, it could partner with a private entity to build one and possibly use or resell unused spectrum.
3 Lay fiber and provide backhaul services.
"Congress is encouraging FirstNet to form public/ private partnerships and to allow roaming on existing networks. ... If NTCA [National Telecommunications Cooperative Association] members already have LTE [Long Term Evolution] networks, they can work out roaming deals with either FirstNet or with states that may opt out of FirstNet." -Ron Strecker, former CEO Panhandle Telephone Cooperative Inc.
Rachel Brown is a freelance writer. She can he reached at rachelshdiaol.com.
(c) 2013 National Telephone Cooperative
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